Obama, lawmakers ready to renew push to shutter Guantánamo Bay prison

As President Obama gears up for a new push to close Guantánamo Bay, lawmakers from both parties are skeptical the president will be successful in persuading Congress to shutter the facility.

Obama is delivering a speech on national security Thursday, where White House officials say he will detail efforts to fulfill a vow that he made in the first week of his presidency.

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The president is making a new push after Congress blocked attempts to close Guantánamo during his first term and placed additional restrictions on sending detainees out of the facility.

While supporters of closing the prison are encouraged by the president’s pledge to return to the issue, they say they haven’t yet heard how he will win over lawmakers opposed to his detention policies.

“Congress has blocked it, so he’s going to have to find a way to remove the blockages of Congress, and hopefully he’ll let us know how he’ll do that,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters Tuesday.

Levin wrote a letter two weeks ago to the White House urging the president to do what he can without Congress to close the facility. He wants Obama to appoint an official in charge of relocating the more than 80 detainees at the camp who have been cleared for release.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), another vocal opponent of Guantánamo, wrote to the White House last month urging a transfer of the cleared detainees.

Levin said that, while the defense authorization bill has restricted the administration’s ability to transfer detainees, a national security waiver provided a “clear route” to moving detainees to some third countries.

Levin told The Hill on Tuesday that he had yet to receive a response to his letter.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who supports closing Guantánamo, said he has spoken with the White House recently about its efforts, but complained that a detailed plan has yet to be put forward.

“He’s never come up with a viable plan,” McCain said. “We have already committed to try to work with the president to close Guantánamo. The devil is in the details.”

Obama said last month that he “going to go back at this,” and he is expected to lay the groundwork for plans to close Guantánamo in his Thursday speech, which will also focus on drones, targeted killing and the war against al Qaeda.

“I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” Obama said. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. ... It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama “is determined to see the facility closed, and that he will address that subject in his speech.”

White House officials have said that the president is considering a range of options, including reappointing an official to the vacant State Department position for moving detainees, as lawmakers have called for.

White House officials say the administration will also work to implement a Periodic Review Board that was established to help facilitate the release of detainees, but which was not fully developed.

There could be additional momentum to act because the situation at Guantánamo has deteriorated recently amid an unprecedented hunger strike that has grown to more than 100 detainees — more than half the prison’s population.

“It’s getting uglier and uglier at Gitmo,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), said in an interview.

“The level of embarrassment is growing and the cost is growing, so is that enough to persuade them that it’s time to change positions?” said Smith, who has fought congressionally passed restrictions on Guantánamo.

“We’re going to have that debate.”

Opponents of the president’s Guantánamo plans, however, say the steps suggested by the White House thus far have not convinced them the prison should be closed.

Many Republicans argue the administration’s opposition to holding terrorism suspects on U.S. soil under military detention makes moving Guantánamo detainees onto U.S. soil a nonstarter.

There was a large backlash to the administration’s plans in 2009 to try alleged 9/11 terror mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the civilian court system in New York City. The administration backed away from that idea and has restarted the military tribunal process.

“If they do move inside the United States, at some secure location, we’ve got to have a legal system that recognizes the difference between fighting terrorism and fighting traditional crime,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

“If he doesn’t embrace a national security-centric legal approach, I think it would be impossible to close Guantánamo Bay.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said that the administration has adapted a position in which it would prefer to kill terrorism suspects in places like Yemen with drones, rather than capture them and put them in military detention.

“His position on Guantánamo, which arose in the campaign, was untenable. He should never have made that promise,” Sessions told The Hill.

Opponents of military detention, such as Feinstein, argue that the federal courts have long prosecuted terrorists and are much more successful at doing so than the military tribunal system.

Human rights advocates, who have been frustrated by the lack of action from the White House in the president’s first term, say there is a new sense of optimism that Obama will make a real push to get the prison closed.

Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said the White House needs to take the first step by restarting transfers.

“We need to see some detainees leaving Gitmo not in body bags,” she said. “Congress I think is ready to support the president, but I think the gestures have to be in good faith.”

Prasow said there’s been renewed public attention to the issue in the wake of the massive hunger strike, but both Sessions and Graham said that would do little to change their minds.

“You can’t allow a hunger strike to say, ‘Oh they’re on a hunger strike, they’ve all got to be released,’ ” Sessions said.